28 August 2013

Travelling Fantasy Roundtable : Part 18 : Mythical Creatures

Welcome to Part 18 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, a roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature! Today, Sylvia Kelso and Warren Rochelle join me in discussing mythical creatures.

Andrea K Höst

What makes a mythical creature?

Let me tell you about the darati.
Twice the height of a tall man, but very narrow, they dwell in birch forests: their pale mottled skin providing a natural camouflage, while the trunks offer them support and shield them from winds which might knock them from their feet. Darati are patient hunters. They stand, and they wait, usually near water sources, or bushes heavy with edible berries. When prey comes within reach, they exhale a thin mist which disorients and makes drowsy. There is no future for any who fall asleep at the feet of a darati.
Now, let me tell you about dragons.

Your reaction to that second sentence is the difference between fantasy and myth. Darati are not mythical creatures, but rather fantastical ones. They have no weight, and the word 'darati' is as thin a conjuring as the creature I spent the last few minutes creating. No creature I will ever invent could hope to bring with it the tidal wave of association, the almost contemptuous familiarity, the endless flood of possibility in the statement: Here be dragons.

Beautiful, dangerous, villainous, munificent, terrible, transformative. Are dragons rivers, or greed or dinosaurs? Yes, they are. Dragons are thousand stories, old and new. A mental image imprinted into the common id. A different image, perhaps, particularly as you move from one culture to the next, but a word with an almost unrivalled strength. It was not so long ago that dragons were as real as elephants.

Here be dragons. A phrase used on maps. A deliberate conjury not of the unknown, but of myth. Here, the mapmaker suggests, might exist those things that we have all heard of, but are not here, within the bounds of this map. Beyond the borders of the known world live not unspecified ideas of monsters, but all the ones the stories have told us are out there. This outside area is where the mermaids, the rocs, the pegasi enjoyed something resembling existence. The darati never lived there.

The choice to use a mythical creature in a fantasy is a double-edged sword. There is an immense, immediate emotional and intellectual reaction to the word – the idea – of dragon. But this reaction can range from "I love dragon stories!" to "Not another dragon story". Readers will bring their pre-established idea of what a dragon is to the story, and compare your story to all the other stories about dragons, and ask if you're doing anything new – or be disappointed when Your dragon is not Their dragon.  And your dragon will never quite be 'yours' either, because it started from a base template of myth built up by your own experience of dragon stories.

There are, of course, more obscure mythical creatures. I came across a new one to me when researching the Food in Fantasy topic, and discovered the Cinnamon Bird. More obscure mythical creatures will perform their conjury only for the select few who have heard of them, but even so they have a certain something extra. So why use the darati? Why invent from scratch creatures whose name performs no conjury, whose existence lacks the resonance and power of myth?

Perhaps simply because all myths had a beginning, a first time that tale was told. There's always room for another story.

Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia. She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue.

Sylvia Kelso

“Mythical” in this title cd mean, firstly, non-existent, including invented beasts, or secondly, beasts out of myth and legend, non-existent or not.

A fantasy writer inventing a beast naturally asks, Can I make this seem original? A fantasy writer looking to a legendary beast – a dragon, a unicorn - *knows* that s/he faces the answer given by one of Barbara Hambly’s vampires, when asked if they had ever tried to use other ways of getting blood: “Everything has been tried.”

And with the famous mythical beasts everything HAS been tried. Yet, perversely, if you do use/recycle one, yours will never be *quite* the same as every other version. If only because your writing style, hopefully in a good sense, is not like anyone else’s.

Way back in the last century, before I ever wrote anything that cd. be labeled fantasy, I did decide to write what I called a fairytale. It had only two parameters: It started with “once upon a time” and it had a monster/weird thing per chapter. At the time my brain was stuffed with enthusiastic research into antiquity and the second parameter was a cake-walk. Said “monsters” included an Assyrian hawk-headed god, a chimera, of sorts, a serpent oracle, a couple of Gilgamesh Scorpion Men, and, among others – a unicorn.

I did not actually think,
how can I make this unicorn original? Nor did I rehearse all the versions I knew, right down from James V of Scotland’s famous “Fenced Unicorn” tapestry that I finally saw in Stirling Castle, a building replete with Scotland’s own heraldic beast. I didn’t even recall the airiest and most delicate of the modern sugar and good-magic incarnations, in Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Mine just came through the avenues of the story – written in longhand, omg – and – um – there it was.

At this point, Our Hero and his Faithful Sidekick (I was also very traditional about questers in those days) had passed the set-up stage, weathered their early tests and were facing Serious Danger Number One – Lost in Desert During Murderous Pursuit. Which had modulated to Lost in Desert in a Sand-storm. Anddd:

Perhaps it was the thirst that made them heedless when the wind’s regular onslaught broke into veering gusts; and perhaps it was the thirst that hid from them the way the sand now crunched thin and hard under their feet; certainly it was the thirst, locking them into a stupor of endurance, which concealed Sweetwater’s true avenger until it was too late.

Two sand flurries had clashed, an eddy recoiling upon itself, and it came upon them through the curtain, so all they saw was a flash of solider, linearly moving white; all they heard was the crr-unch crr-unch of approaching hooves matched to the grunts of a galloping beast. Then something hit the mare’s right side with the impact of a new-fired cannonball.

The shock bowled her right off her legs and over the prince at her left shoulder, down in the sand beyond him with a great horse scream of pain and shock and fright. The overset prince caught one flash of milk-grey belly and thrashing legs as they arced over him; a sector of open sand; then at right angles to the rest a pair of white, driving hocks that plunged like a fired bow and were gone.

He was rolling in the sand, a snapped spear haft vertical at his elbow, Ervan and the bay a mist shadow beyond his feet. Beside him, all her side a flaring scarlet shield of blood, the mare was trying to get up. And beyond her the attacker had wheeled to complete the kill.

Ripples of silver hide glistened through the sand murk, slender steel muscles played above cloven yellow hooves. It had a horse’s head but a goat’s beard, a pure gold eye, cold and impassive as a surgeon’s, and from the silver forehead a length of gleaming, whorled tortoise-shell was levelled like a spear. The gleam was a lacquer of fresh blood. The goat’s chin tucked under as it trained its weapon on the fallen mare, the delicate hocks were flexing like tempered steel.

The prince struggled onto an elbow. As he did so he saw the pain and terror in his mare’s eyes, and suddenly the sand mist went a bloody, mottled red. His hand shot to the snapped spear. He wrenched it out and floundered up, yelling, “Come on!”

Though it came out as a mere cough the movement sufficed. The unicorn’s eye flicked. Quick as a great cat it changed aim in mid-career, leapt the mare with one feather-light spring and charged the prince.

He had dropped on one knee. Now he planted the other on the broken spear butt and leant it up and outward, gripping it in both hands. The blade was just above his head. He knew the haft was too short, he knew that even if he aimed true the unicorn would transfix him, and he did not care. He had forgotten all about the Quest. He knew only that his innocent mare was dying, and he meant to have her revenge.

The golden eye leapt at him, the nostril flaring like a great red rose. He heard its quick breath and somehow admired the splendid force with which its hind feet punched the sand. I shall die with honour, he thought, and dropping the spear point below the round ringed boss of the levelled horn, he trained it between the cushions of that sleek silver breast.

But suddenly a shadow sprang over him. Something flashed; there was a brazen scream, an axe-like clunk! A silver projectile hurtled past, a spray of blood drenched his face, and the swing’s impetus dropped Ervan on his knees beside the prince, yelling, “Got him! Got it! Look!”

Out in the fog the unicorn pivoted, a splendid, deadly javelin haft, rearing, beating the air with its forefeet, braying with rage and pain; and the prince saw what Ervan had got.

The horn had been lopped. Its point was gone, and the trunk played like a fountain, three or four simultaneous sprays of blood.

No, my unicorn wasn’t pretty, or in the least simpatico. I did hope it was powerfully vivid, menacing, and very definitely Elsewhere. But the creative unit, aka the Black Gang, were operating in their usual mode, right down to the lopped horn, which, like the heads of cattle I had seen dehorned back home in Australia, would spout not one but two or three jets of blood.

The BG’s nature emerged even more clearly at the Last Major Battle, a confrontation with the Scorpion Men which was going to be awesome, a heraldic swash-and-buckle, larger than life – in fact, mythical. Unfortunately, the Black Gang extrapolated the consequences of swinging a sword two-handed at a six-foot high monster while standing on an ice lake, and ye heraldry degenerated into an ice-hockey pile-up over a collapsed Rugby scrum.

The consequences were definitely catastrophic, but the actual event? Traumatic, ferocious, bloody. Yep. Mythical? Well, er – no. It seems if I do mythical, with beasts or anything else, it very definitely turns out nearly all my own.

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia, and writes fantasy and SF set mostly in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some stories in Australian and US anthologies. Her latest short story, “The Honor of the Ferrocarril” appeared in Gears and Levers 3 from Skywarrior Books, and “Spring in Geneva,” a novella riff on Frankenstein, is projected to appear from Aqueduct Press in October 2013.

Warren Rochelle

Necessary Monsters

According to Jorge Luis Borges, “…there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination, and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster …” (The Book of Imaginary Beings xii). It is what these monsters, the mythical beasts that populate the wild countries of the fantastic, might be necessary for that I want to consider briefly here. What some of the parts do they play in the tales we read (and write) of these countries—as necessary monsters are they symbol, metaphor? Archetypes of the monstrous, evil—or rather something more amoral, wildness, the uncontrolled?

For Le Guin, the answer as to what her dragons are necessary for might be, to all of these questions, yes, more or less. In a previous essay, “The Emersonian Choice: Connections between Dragons and Humans in Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle (Extrapolation 47.3, 417-426), I have discussed this at some length. Here, briefly, dragons and humans were once “all one people, one race, winging and speaking the True Language.” Some became more in “love with flight and wildness” and “Others of the dragon-people came to care little for flight, but gathered up treasure, wealth, things made, things learned …” (Le Guin, Tehanu 12). They become two people. Dragons choose to be; we chose to make. Dragons choose to be Nature; we choose to be active in Nature—and learning this, for both dragons and humans in Earthsea, becomes an essential act—for humans of being fully human.

Tolkien writes of the necessity of monsters in a different way in his famous essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics.” Originally a lecture, he took on the critics who wanted to downplay the “fantastical elements” in the poem. He argued, instead, they were the key to the narrative, and the poem should studied as a work of art. In other words, Beowulf needs his monsters, his mythical beasts, Grendel and his mother, and the dragon. To be the hero he wants to be, he must have monsters to fight. He is the Good; they are the Evil. He, to be a hero, must fight evil.

To return to Le Guin, she argues, in her essay, “The Child and the Shadow,” that not only must the hero, the Good Guy, have monsters, or Evil to fight, but that good must not just fight evil, it must embrace it—“this monster is an integral part of the man and cannot be denied …” (in Language of the Night 56). The dark, the monster, “The shadow is on the other side of our psyche, the dark brother of the conscious mind” (59) and if we are to live “in the real world, [we] must admit that the hateful, the evil, exist within [ourselves]” (60). We are the monsters, the mythical beasts.

But, are all mythical beasts monsters, are they all dark emblems of evil? What of unicorns? Surely these mythical beasts are not malevolent. Well, it depends on the story. According to A Natural History of the Unnatural World, unicorns are “fierce, wild and untameable by nature,” but “[they become] meek and gentle with [their] young and in the presence of human virgins” (78). In the Thurber classic, “The Unicorn in the Garden,” the title beast is indeed untamed, but it is not tearing up the garden, rather it is “cropping the roses.” It eats the lily from the man’s hand. Gentle and wild, a “mythical beast”—and perhaps there, perhaps not. Perhaps here it is more about believing that such beasts do have a reality. But the man does use the unicorn to get rid of his wife; he does lie to the psychiatrist; he is not wholly innocent, no matter how justified his actions may seem to most readers (including this one).

Which brings me back to the beginning: necessary monsters, essential metaphors, living symbols. We are both dark and light, and the dark is integral to being human as much as the light. Yes, monsters are necessary and sometimes we find them in our myths. Sometimes we find them by looking into our mirrors.

Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, "The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. His short story, “The Boy on McGee Street,” was just published in Queer Fish 2 (Pink Narcissus Press, 2012). His short fiction can be found in such journals as Icarus, Collective Fallout, North Carolina Literary Review, Romance and Beyond, Forbidden Lines, and Aboriginal Science Fiction. He is at work on a novel about a gay werewolf and his godling boyfriend and a collection of gay-themed speculative fiction, in which all the stories have happy endings, sort of.   Please see http://warrenrochelle.com

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